BUFORD — Tessa Daniels sported a scraped-up elbow and her ears were ringing, but she could wear a big smile about the sequence of events that delivered those side effects.
The Buford softball senior first baseman fielded an eighth-inning squeeze bunt and beat the runner to the plate to apply the tag for the first out, then hit a game-winning sacrifice fly to deep center field in a 4-3 win against Madison County for the Region 8-AAAA title on Thursday night.
Samantha Thomas was the Lady Wolves’ runner who started on second in the bottom of the eighth by international tiebreaker rules, then advanced to third when the ball squirted to the left of the Red Raiders’ catcher. When Daniels’ fly ball was nearly to the fence, Thomas tagged up for the winning run.
Of her highlight defensive play, Daniels said she didn’t want to chance anything after struggling with her throws earlier. Her dash to the plate made sure she’d remember this game for positive reasons.
Buford (29-1) had rarely been in tight contests this season. But with plenty of adversity against Madison County (26-6), the Wolves responded.
“Poise and class, that’s what Coach Wolfe always talks about,” Daniels said.
Sydney Stavro reached on an error, stole two bases and scored when Jordan Deep reached on an error in the bottom of the first as Buford took an early 1-0 lead.
Breanna Gutierrez’s two-run single back up the middle made it 3-0 in the third inning.
But singles by Haley Gordon and Dani Lukas and a pair of errors allowed the Red Raiders to cut it to 3-2 in the top of the fourth.
Pinch runner Kelsey Wood scored on a passed ball in the fifth as Madison County tied it 3-all.
“We didn’t play particularly well,” Buford coach Tony Wolfe said. “And hat’s off to Madison County. They came over here and played a whale of a game against us and fought us all the way. We made enough plays.”
Buford saw a scoring chance slip away in the bottom of the fifth after Thomas singled but was ruled to have left first base early on what would have been a multi-base hit for Gutierrez. Instead, Gutierrez had to come back to the plate and the Wolves came up empty that inning.
Then, Buford had two runners on with no outs in the sixth after a Daniels double and Remington Hasty being hit by a pitch. But Drew Puckett was called out for her bunt hitting her in fair play, and Alexus Murray was out in a bang-bang play at first on another bunt as the Wolves couldn’t capitalize.
Both teams went down 1-2-3 in the seventh.
International tiebreaker rules set up the eighth-inning excitement as Mallory Smith started the top half of the inning on second and moved over on a passed ball. But when she tried to come home on a Gordon bunt, Daniels fielded the ball and made the frantic dash to tag her out at home. Buford reliever Bria Bush then dialed up a strikeout and a fly ball to left field to end the threat.
Thomas started the bottom of the eighth on second for the Wolves before advancing to third with one out. Then, Daniels’ towering fly ball clinched the game and the Region 8-AAAA No. 1 seed for Buford.
“Although we kicked it around a little bit, I’m really happy with the way we fought through it and found a way to win,” Wolfe said.
The Wolves begin the playoffs at home next Wednesday as they chase their eighth consecutive state title.
“This is the way softball will be over the next three weeks if we’re lucky enough to play for three weeks,” Wolfe said. “They’re going to be tight games, and you’re not going to play the game perfectly. But you’re going to have to make some plays when it really matters.”
Daniels had two hits, with Stavro scoring two runs and stealing three bases for Buford.
Lukas totaled two hits, a run and an RBI to help her own cause for Madison County. She took the loss, going 7 1/3 innings and surrendering five hits, three walks and a hit batsman.
Bush picked up the win, tossing three scoreless innings of relief for the Wolves. She tallied four strikeouts and no walks while allowing one hit. After the first batter she faced had that hit, the only runner to reach was Gordon on the fielder’s choice where Daniels tagged out Smith at the plate.
Kennedy Kotula went the first five innings, striking out two and allowing three hits and a walk in a no-decision for Buford.
“We preach to them all the time ‘you’ve got to love when the game is hard’ and embrace those kind of games,” Wolfe said.
WHITE COUNTY 5, NORTH OCONEE 3: The Lady Warriors rallied from a 3-1 deficit by scoring four runs in the top of the seventh inning Thursday to earn the No. 3 playoff seed from Region 8-AAAA.
Then Isabelle Fain, who picked up the complete-game win, set the Lady Titans down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the seventh.
Brelan Pierce scored on a wild pitch and Lauren Barnard’s run-scoring groundout tied the game. Then, Hannah Wall’s RBI single pushed White County in front before Madison Taylor reached on an error to score an insurance run.
White County (11-19-1) begins the Class AAAA playoffs Wednesday night on the road.